College baseball check-in – Top storylines, sleeper teams, conference tourney picks

The college baseball season is hitting high gear, with the College World Series in Omaha, Nebraska, less than a month away.

The NCAA baseball tournament’s field of 64 teams, consisting of 31 conference champions and 33 at-large entrants, will be announced at noon May 30 on ESPN2 and the ESPN App. The top 16 teams host regionals June 3-6, with four teams at each site competing in a double-elimination format. The 16 regional winners advance to super regionals, which are best-of-three series hosted by the top eight remaining teams to be held June 10-13.

The last eight teams left standing move on to the College World Series in Omaha beginning June 17. There, teams compete in two four-team double-elimination brackets, with the winners meeting in a best-of-three final beginning June 25 to determine the national champion. All CWS games will air on the ESPN family of networks.

Tennessee has spent much of the season as the clear-cut No. 1 team in the country, with Oregon State not far behind. From there, there is plenty of competition for the top 16 and top eight slots to host NCAA tournament games.

The conference tournaments occur before all of that. To get caught up on where things stand, we asked ESPN college baseball experts Mike Rooney, Chris Burke, Ryan McGee and Kyle Peterson what storylines they are watching most closely, what teams have been the most pleasant surprises and what sleeper teams could make some noise in Omaha, as well as their picks in the top conference tourneys.

What storyline are you following most closely?

Rooney: Can a No. 1 overall seed win the College World Series for the first time since 1999, when Miami did it? If anyone can, it’s the Tennessee Volunteers.

Burke: I agree. One of the weirdest stats in college baseball this century is that there has not been one No. 1 overall seed to win the CWS, and there have been numerous examples of No. 1 teams not even making it to Omaha. Can Tennessee, the likely top seed, be the team that finally breaks the streak?

McGee: Can the programs that on paper should have always been great at baseball, and who finally look like they are ready to be great at baseball, stay great at baseball when it matters most? Tennessee, Virginia Tech, Texas State, Auburn, NC State, West Virginia … there is a very long list of schools who, while they have all had some great moments and players, have never been consistently great programs despite seemingly having all the right ingredients for a very long time. Is this the year one of them finally moves to the next level, taking a great regular season and translating that into success in Omaha that is a springboard to make them a consistent contender? It can be done (see Virginia and Vanderbilt, among others) but it isn’t easy.

Peterson: Tennessee’s run throughout the season is still the overarching storyline, but aside from that, it feels like we’re in store for a postseason that will be very unpredictable. It feels like things are ripe for some new names to make the CWS.

What team has been the most pleasant surprise this season?

Rooney: Connecticut. The Huskies lost a first-round pick to injury, with Reggie Crawford needing Tommy John surgery, and still are crushing it.

Burke: Texas A&M. Jim Schlossnagle left TCU after 20 incredible years and took on the challenge of jump-starting an Aggies program that had been stuck in neutral for the last few years. A&M won only nine SEC games in 2021 and was not projected to be a tournament team this year. However, Schloss and his top-tier staff went to the transfer portal and landed some real dudes (Dylan Rock, Jack Moss and Troy Claunch, among them) and transformed their roster. The Aggies started slowly but now find themselves at the top of the SEC West and seem poised to be a top-16 seed and a regional host.

McGee: Texas State. Every game this Bobcats team wins rewrites another page of the program’s record book. They have clinched at least a share of the Sun Belt title, reached 41 wins for the first time, are ranked in the top 15 and are all but guaranteed to earn their first NCAA tourney bid in more than a decade.

Peterson: Texas A&M. The Aggies’ offensive turnaround in Year 1 of the Schlossnagle era has been pretty impressive and they are in prime position to host in the postseason. I did not see that happening back in February. Virginia Tech and Maryland are next on my list after the Aggies.

Who is your pick for national player of the year?

Rooney: Ivan Melendez, Texas. The slugging first baseman is challenging for the national Triple Crown while playing his home games in a notoriously pitcher-friendly park.

Burke: Entering the weekend, Melendez has 26 home runs and 80 RBIs while hitting .421 and has been the driving force behind a Texas team that has had an up-and-down run through the Big 12. Without the consistent dominance of Melendez, there is no telling where Texas would be right now, but I’m certain they would not still be in the mix to be a regional host. He’s having one of the best seasons of the BBCOR bat era.

McGee: Paul Skenes, Air Force. This dude is the showtime of college baseball. As of May 18, he was hitting .306/10/32 as a DH, on the mound he’s 8-2 with a sub-3 ERA, he’s ranked as high as the second-best MLB prospect and he chose the Air Force Academy over other schools because he wanted to serve his country. If this baseball thing doesn’t work out, maybe he can join the Avengers.

Peterson: Another vote for Melendez, who is just too good to ignore.

What sleeper team do you think can make some noise in Omaha?

Rooney: Gonzaga. The Zags have one of the best rotations in the country with Gabe Hughes, William Kempner and Trystan Vrieling.

Burke: Virginia Tech. They are having a great season, so maybe they don’t qualify as a sleeper, but this program has not been on the national scene in quite some time. John Szefc’s club is in position to make the NCAA tournament for the first time since 2013, and with a solid finish will certainly be a host. Led by a position player group that is as talented as any in the country, this group can score in bunches (86 home runs, 12th in the NCAA) and plays world-class defense (.981 fielding percentage, 11th the NCAA). If the Hokies can pitch well enough, don’t be surprised if they show up in Omaha.

McGee: Virginia. OK, OK, calling UVA a sleeper feels super weird, but exactly one month ago these dudes were in the middle of a 1-7 train wreck, and I think a lot of folks checked out on them. If they take care of business in a ginormous series at Louisville this weekend and continue their May momentum into the ACC tourney, then look out. Hosting a regional, maybe facing archrival Virginia Tech in a super … if the rest of the field allows the once-reeling Hoos to get back to Omaha, they might very well regret it.

Peterson: Gonzaga. With a pitching staff that can match up against anyone, the Zags could be in position to host a regional. If they make it to a super regional, even if they have to travel, their arms will match up well with whoever they meet.

Turning our attention to the conference tournaments …


May 24-29 at Hoover, Alabama
Coverage on SEC Network, final on ESPN2


Winner: Tennessee. The Vols are the best team in the country and have tons of depth.

Sleeper: Ole Miss. The Rebs, a preseason top-five team, are desperate, which makes them dangerous.


Winner: Tennessee. They have the deepest pitching staff, and to run the table in Hoover you’ve got to have a stable full of dudes.

Sleeper: Vanderbilt. It’s been an up-and-down season for the Vandy boys, but there is plenty of pitching talent and the offense, led by the electric Enrique Bradfield Jr., is starting to play better.


Winner: Tennessee. So loaded.

Sleeper: Vandy. I think back to midseason, when the Dores were uncharacteristically inconsistent, and I am reminded of when Lando Calrissian in “Return of the Jedi” said, “I wonder what those star destroyers are waiting for?” The answer is May.


Winner: Tennessee

Sleeper: Florida


May 24-29 at Charlotte, North Carolina
Semifinals on ACC Network, final on ESPN2


Winner: Virginia. An elite position-player group with just enough arms.

Sleeper: Clemson. A streaky team capable of getting hot.


Winner: Virginia Tech. The ACC tournament moved to Truist Field in Charlotte, which has proved to be a hitter-friendly park. The odds are that the champs will have to slug their way to a title, so I’ll go with the Hokies and their uber-talented lineup. Watch out for the trio of Tanner Schobel, Jack Hurley and Gavin Cross — those dudes can rake!

Sleeper: Wake Forest. Watch out for the Demon Deacons. Again, this tournament will require lots of offense to win and the Deacs are second in the country in runs scored.


Winner: Virginia. See what I wrote above in the Omaha sleeper section.

Sleeper: Wake Forest. I saw the Deacs twice earlier in the year, both midweek games in which they fell behind early, then spent the next couple of innings putting up football scores. Explosive half-innings = conference tourney studliness.


Winner: Miami

Sleeper: Georgia Tech

Big 12

May 25-29 at Arlington, Texas
Coverage on ESPNU and ESPN+


Winner: Oklahoma State. The Cowboys are the best team in the league, have pitching depth and are finally healthy.

Sleeper: West Virginia. The Mountaineers have a good style for tournament play and are playing for a regional spot.


Winner: Texas. It feels like the Longhorns are ready to start to put the gas pedal down for the finishing stretch. They will head to Globe Life Field with the motivation that if they win the Big 12, they could play at home for at least the first round of the NCAA tournament. This team is still good enough to get to Omaha, and I’m betting the postseason will see them playing their best ball.

Sleeper: Oklahoma. Skip Johnson’s team is playing its best ball down the stretch, winning its last three series. Watch out for the Sooners!


Winner: Texas. I was on the Longhorns bandwagon in preseason and I have never jumped off, even as they scuffled through sections of the season. This is a ridiculous roster with postseason reps. In other words, they were never built for March and April. They were made for May and June.

Sleeper: West Virginia. They score runs in bunches and are carrying a lot of tough regular-season scars into the tourney with revenge on their minds.


Winner: TCU

Sleeper: Texas


May 25-29 at Scottsdale, Arizona
Final on ESPN2


Winner: Oregon State. The Beavers have a deep roster and might be the best team in the country.

Sleeper: Arizona State. The Sun Devils have a high-scoring offense and Scottsdale Stadium should play hot.


Winner: Stanford. I’m going with Dave Esquer’s club. The Cardinal have the experience on their roster to rise to the occasion and it’s very good news that the talented combo of Brock Jones and Drew Bowser is trending up. That’s a scary thought for a team that has proven it is good enough to beat No. 2 Oregon State in Corvallis.

Sleeper: Oregon: Mark Wasikowski’s team is the second highest-scoring team in the Pac-12 and has shown it can score runs in different ways. With the tournament being played in toasty Scottsdale, don’t be surprised if many of these games are high scoring. The Ducks may surprise some people.


Winner: Oregon State. While we’ve all been gushing about Tennessee this spring, another orange-clad team has been putting together its own case for best team in the land, and this one has the Vols beat when it comes to “been there, done that.”

Sleeper: Oregon. Yeah, they got run out of Corvallis just two weeks ago, but the Ducks won their series at ASU, they just beat Gonzaga and they finish with Arizona. If they have a good weekend, they might roll into Scottsdale with some big green chips on their shoulders.


Winner: Oregon State

Sleeper: Arizona